In Game 1 of the series between the Nets and Bucks, it took 43 seconds for James Harden to be sidelined indefinitely. Then in Game 4, Kyrie Irving was injured, too, reportedly headed out of Fiserv Forum on crutches with his ankle encased in a walking boot.
If it seemed like a battle of attrition for the Nets, the hardest part to face is that the physical attack had hardly begun.
Harden’s hamstring was strained in a non-contact fashion 43 seconds into the series, and Irving’s sprained ankle came when he rose for a floater near the rim and came down on the side of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, Irving’s foot turning 90 degrees as he immediately fell to the floor in pain.
But that wasn’t the physical play Nets coach Steve Nash was griping about afterwards and the style that just might turn the series. With Kevin Durant the last star standing, his impact was negated as the Bucks didn’t injure him, but did confront him with a throwback defensive effort as P.J. Tucker attached his stocky body to Durant’s lanky one, giving him not an inch of space or a moment of comfort.
In Game 2, as the Nets built a two games to none lead with a one-sided win, Durant and Irving coasted through their offensive arsenal with little challenge. But in Game 3, Tucker began to work Durant over. He knows as well as Durant does, and really, all of us do, that Durant can’t be shut down. But he made it a challenge for Durant, the two going nose to nose and exchanging words — harsh enough that team security rushed onto the floor with Durant’s security guard being suspended from the series for bumping Tucker.
Tucker’s style only grew tougher, with help coming from all angles as the Nets' trio of stars was reduced to just one. With Tucker as the primary defender Durant, was just 3-for-12 in Game 4, and Nash made the decision to safely tuck Durant away for the final minutes of the game with the Bucks running away with it to even the series heading back to Brooklyn.
"I don't see anything that's changed after last game," Nash said afterward. "He played that way before they had their altercation. He's playing extremely physical and made it difficult. That's his role on their team and I thought it was borderline non-basketball physical at times, but that's the playoffs."
Durant was not available to speak and neither was Tucker as both teams evacuated the arena because of a fire alarm. But Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer understandably had a different opinion.
"He’s just guarding him," Budenholzer said. "If that's not basketball I don't know what is. We’ve just got to keep the same mindset to guard him, to make everything tough. So nothing changes. It's just P.J.’s a very good individual defender, plus a lot of time and studying film work, understanding tendencies and those things. It's just guarding."
The NBA is clearly a different world these days with referees working to stick to a rulebook stacked to create offense and avoid injury. But as evidenced by the ejection of Nikola Jokic Sunday night for a Flagrant 2 when he swatted hard at the ball -- his hand contacting only the ball but his arm scraping against Cam Payne’s face -- there is little tolerance for hard-nosed defense.
Was Jokic’s play grounded in frustration? Sure, but Charles Oakley and other old-time defenders must be shaking their heads that it merited an ejection. Even Carmelo Anthony based his defense for years on that style of swatting at the ball with a roundhouse swing. The review by the officials talked of wind-up, impact and follow-through, unnecessary contact and it all seemed to ignore the fact that his hand hadn’t touched Payne. His arm did graze him and let’s be honest, after covering his face as if he’d been struck by a hammer, Payne got up and never left the game. Jokic, who had not gotten assessed a flagrant in the last three years, went over and apologized to Payne as he left the floor after being ejected.
So the league is made for Durant to run free and easy, but Tucker is a throwback and he must straddle the line of trying to physically work Durant over while avoiding foul trouble.
"P.J. Tucker was phenomenal on both ends of the court," Budenholzer said.
Nash may be a first-time coach, but he has been around and maybe he was laying some seeds for the NBA and the officials. Tuesday in Game 5, all eyes may be on Tucker as he tries to stop Durant, and all the pressure may be on Durant, left alone to try to carry the Nets until help comes.
"You have to adapt and adjust," Nash said. "Something definitely, in a sense, changed from the way the game was played in Brooklyn and here in Milwaukee. We’ve got to adapt. We've got to adjust. We’ve got to try and make it easy and like I said, everyone has got to be aggressive, play and pitch in and be a part of that offense instead of [being] predictable and singling Kevin out."